Veteran Eliza Gilkyson has never been an exceptional vocalist. She delivered a refreshing rendition of Neil Young’s “I Am a Child” on Red Horse, her CD collaboration with Red House Records labelmates John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky, standing on passion. That is her strength. Feeling a song, getting at the sense of it and carrying that through. Would that Gilkyson had a bit more body to her voice and didn’t sound, for the most part, wispy, shallow, and self-conscious.
On the right material, Eliza Gilkyson shines—as she intermittently does on Roses at the End of Time (Red House Records). There is the exceptional “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” matching an inspired vocal to strikingly sardonic verse. With bluesy New-Orleans-style backup, she finds a range, from sultry depths to lilting falsetto, in which her pipes work well. “People get ready, ‘cause it won’t be long/ ’Fore a hurricane will be blowin’ strong/ And the chance to rise will be come and gone/ When it’s slouchin’ towards Bethlehem.” She haunts in wry tones with a wizened look at hard circumstance and cynical opportunists. “He’s comin’ in the name of hunger/ Draggin’ all the poor folks under/ Who stands behind him I wonder/ Slouchin’ towards Bethlehem.” Another winner is “Belle of the Ball,” harking in texture to Janice Ian. The moody melody is basic, again in Gilkyson’s wheelhouse, showcasing her to strongest effect as she mines the lyrics for subtlety. It’s the reminiscing of womanly trial by fire at the whim of a man’s superficial fancies.
Most of Roses at the End of Time is less than memorable—though that’s certainly not due to any lacking on Eliza Gilkyson’s part as a songsmith. She effortlessly melds country, folk, and bluegrass structures and artfully wields a sure hand with poetic word-flow. The eerie lament “Blue Moon Night,” round-house rocker “Looking for a Place” with a Dylan-like anthem and subdued, existential charmer “Midnight on Raton” are first-rate songs crying out for someone with serious chops to come across and cover. It’s hard, for example, not to be touched by how close “Midnight on Raton” cuts to the bone of loneliness. “Sitting in a motel on the outskirts of Raton/ How the years have flown/ Since Townes passed through these hills alone/ I got someone who loves me /But it’s too late to phone/ I wanna ride this road forever/ And I’m dying to go home.”
The material’s there, no doubt. Eliza Gilkyson’s performance, though, is hit and miss.